Daniel Woodrell’s Florianne is a short story on a long topic: one father wrestling with the aftermath of his daughter’s kidnap and rape. The character provides a brief and painful overview of his sweet child’s brief life, and the pain and suspicions that have ruined his own life, forever, after her disappearance. “I suspect everybody around here, and nobody special,” says the unnamed narrator, realizing that his daughter’s murderer lives in his small community. It ends with a haunting line that rises above this little tale to be a lament for all unspeakable violence: “How much of our world is in on this?”
It’s a question I kept asking this past weekend, which brought the news of the rampage by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California. The 22-year-old man seems to have killed six people and then himself on Friday in what he portrayed as an act of hatred towards the women who never noticed him and the men they chose to notice instead. The past few months saw Mr. Rodger upload a series of YouTube videos describing his fury at still being a virgin. Then, in an e-mail of more than 130 pages he sent the day before his crimes, he wished for a world devoid of both love and sex, where all women would be put in concentration camps and then starved to death.
Busy gunmen in the United States are nothing new, and as usual there was a divide between those who painted Mr. Rodger as a solitary madman, and those who saw his actions as symbolic of an ideology and its followers. Evidence for the former includes the Santa Barbara City College student’s known mental instability: after finding Mr. Rodger’s videos, his parents did try to address his mental health; he’d apparently been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome and given a prescription he refused to take. Mr. Rodger grew up rich and cosmopolitan, sneering at others from behind the wheel of his BMW – he wasn’t an Everyman and had no interest in being one.
Other analyses resisted the lone-gunman theory. Much has been made of Mr. Rodger’s attraction to internet forums for “men’s rights”: followers of this movement believe that women use sexual power to control influential men, who then run the world counter to male interests (supposedly denying divorced fathers custody en masse, for example, while demanding spousal support). Mr. Rodger also explored, then rejected, the “Pick-Up Artist” community – online snake-oil salesmen who maintain that women dole out sex to rich, muscular “alpha males,” and that it’s possible to become one by literally buying into their philosophy. Mr. Rodger may not have been a totally welcome member of men’s rights forums or the Pick Up Artist scene – it seems that in the last weeks of his life, he was rejected and ridiculed by even the online fringe known as “the manosphere.” But there was something about the entitled misogyny too often found there that resonated with him that places me in the second camp, the one that says more than just one person must shoulder responsibility for this horror.
As with most things to do with gender right now, the definitions of men and masculinity are openly in flux. Much of that reckoning is difficult: men no longer dominate post-secondary education, physical-labour jobs took a serious hit in the Great Recession, and even men actively trying to embrace their domestic lives are hitting glass ceilings women have been chipping away at for decades. Let me be clear: I don’t believe we live in what the men’s rights groups call a “gynocracy,” and when I check out the majority-male lineup of executive billionaires and world leaders, I don’t see sexy ladies backseat driving them. But I do think that as men who were told the world was their oyster realize they’re no longer guaranteed the best pearls, it’s resulting in a wave of identity crises and bitterness.
If rage and entitlement isn’t your definition of manhood, it’s time to say so out loud. We’re constantly demanding that people who wear certain labels justify the actions of others who share those labels. “Moderate Muslims” are told to speak out when an act of domestic violence by one of their faith is dubbed an “honour killing.” Likewise, “the black community” is constantly forced to take responsibility for the actions of a violent minority among them. Even “feminists” – whose stated goal is just to be people – must constantly answer for the most extreme voices on their fringe. Yet although it’s a statistical fact that men commit most violent crime, half the population isn’t being forced to reckon with their own contributions.
“How much of our world is in on it?” asks Florianne’s father, and he doesn’t just mean the actual perpetrators. He’s realized that some of his drinking buddies, or the customers who come into his shop, must know who’s guilty of his daughter’s murder. They look away, not wanting to get involved. But sometimes, to refuse to choose a side is to let one be chosen for you.
If angry, sometimes violent, men are actively defining the entire gender, every guy looking away is letting them get away with it. By virtue of existence, you’re in on it.